The Covid-19 pandemic has caused havoc all over the world, bringing down many industries with a mighty bang. During the present crisis caused by the pandemic, seafarers are the forgotten heroes involved with the transportation of more than 80% of international freight, like vital food, medical goods, raw materials, and more, around the globe. They face unprecedented challenges, as many are left stranded on ships due to the delays in certain countries caused by the restrictions placed on air travel which becomes necessary to perform crew changes.
Several seafarers with expired contracts are unable to disembark, and several others are unable to join the vessels due to travel restrictions and regulations imposed by governments in the wake of the pandemic. The U.N. General Secretary, Mr. Guterres, has expressed his concern for the “key workers” of the maritime industry who are undergoing a humanitarian and safety crisis. The restrictions imposed were a ban on travel, embarkation, and disembarkation in ports, quarantine measures, lack of flights, visas, and passports.
Many seafarers have been stranded on ships for more than 11 months, the stipulated time of duty in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). Many have been denied proper access to medical care and leave which is a huge violation of rights. Several grave concerns arise with regards to the safety and well-being of the seafarers and the ship. Seafarers are required to continue operating the vessels even though they are fatigued and over-exhausted, increasing the chances of accidents and casualties.
The IMO has requested to remove obstacles such as travel and visa restrictions and to provide immediate medical attention to seafarers in need. The seafarer’s duration of contract varies but is typically around four to six months. At sea, they are required to work 10 – 12 hours shifts, every day. Crew changes are essential and should comply with international maritime regulations for safety. But without proper safeguards, the rights of the seafarers are abused.
What are the steps taken?
A Seafarer Crisis Action Team, established by the IMO, monitors the situation, coordinates efforts, provides support for individuals, especially in case of emergencies, and communicates with all necessary stakeholders to ensure a smooth sailing. The team has been working around the clock to solve the humanitarian crisis.
The IMO has urged the governments to label the sailors as ‘key workers’ – marine personnel, seafarers, fishing vessel personnel, offshore energy sector, and service provider personnel. The ‘key worker’ designation ensures that the seafarers are exempted from travel restrictions. Crew change is also vital to ensure that commercial ships can carry essential goods uninterrupted to their destinations.
The governments across the globe are directed to ensure all vessels visiting their ports should permit smooth crew changes. A series of protocols to ensure crew safety with general measures and procedures are designed and implemented and shared with the authorities.
Thirteen countries signed the Joint Statement of the International Maritime Virtual Summit on Crew Changes on 9th July 2020. By this statement, governments agreed to initiate crew changes and designate seafarers as key workers. However, the situation remains grim with reports of difficulties in implementation being reported across countries. Many major maritime funding charities are collaborating with other charities and organizations around the world to support the seafarers’ cause.